Culture, Travel & Sport

Why football fans are suddenly turning their attention to Belarus

Has there ever before been so much interest in the Belarus Premier League? Almost certainly not.

Across the world, football has been one of the most high-profile casualties of the battle to contain the spread of the new coronavirus Covid-19.

With leagues shut down everywhere fans have been left without their fix, and many have resorted to scouring YouTube for classic matches from the past as a way of easing the craving. (Your correspondent writes from experience).

On Thursday, however, we finally had real, actual football to watch, as the Belarus Vysheyshaya Liga kicked off the 2020 season with a match between Energetik BGU Minsk and BATE Borisov. Games are not being played behind closed doors, but crowds are limited to 1,000 people.

The result was something of a shock: Energetik (formerly known as Zvezda Minsk) ran out 3-1 winners against BATE, the most successful club side in Belarusian history, thanks to a couple of goals from Uzbek international Jasurbek Yakhshiboev, currently on-loan from Pakhtakor Tashkent, and another from Dušan Bakić, a Montenegrin under-21 international.

Later in the day, Shakytor Soligorsk lost 0-1 at home to Torpedo-Belaz Zhodino. Brazilian Gabriel Ramos scored the only goal of the game.

Two matches took place on Friday (current champions Dinamo Brest drew 1-1 with Smolevichi STI, while Dinamo Minsk lost 0-1 at home to Ruh Brest) and a further four games take place over the weekend: two each on Saturday and Sunday.

Why is Belarus bucking the trend and staging football matches in the middle of a global health pandemic?

It might have something to do with the attitude of the country’s maverick president, Alexander Lukashenko, to the coronavirus in general.

On March 16 Lukashenko encouraged citizens to work in the countryside and drive tractors as a way of overcoming the coronavirus crisis.

Lukashenko, a former collective farm boss who likes to emphasise his connection to the land and rural life, told officials at a televised meeting that “there shouldn’t be any panic” over the virus.

“You just have to work, especially now, in a village,” he said, adding: “the tractor will heal everyone. The fields heal everyone.” He also told people to drink lots of vodka.

Another reason for football in Belarus continuing may be found in the country’s ongoing attempt to reach the final stages of a major international tournament for the first time.

At the end of March, Belarus were due to meet Israel in a play-off for a place in UEFA 2020 (a tournament now put back to 2021). No new date has yet been set for the match, but if it is rescheduled for some time in the early summer, the Belarus team (almost all of whom play in their own league) are likely to be far more match fit than their opponents. Israel’s league – like almost every other in the world – is currently suspended.

With football in Belarus likely to be our only source of sport of any kind for the near future, it might be an idea to pick a side to support.

I have gone for Dinamo Minsk, historically the biggest club in the country and the only club from Belarus to win the Soviet Top League, in 1982, but who have in recent decades had to play second fiddle to BATE. Indeed, Dinamo have not won the Vysheyshaya Liga since 2004.

Why Dinamo? Easy: their stadium is magnificent.

So often when football clubs renovate or rebuild old stadiums all trace of the past is obliterated. Dinamo bucked the trend when renovating their home, the Minsk Olympic Stadium, from 2012-18 by preserving the gorgeous arches of the original stadium, first built in 1934.

For that alone, they get my vote.

Should, like me, you need a football fix, you can watch Dinamo and the 15 other Vysheyshaya Liga sides in action on the dedicated sports TV channel Belarus 5. If, that is, you can find a Belarusian VPN to work around the geoblock placed on transmissions.

The sports betting website Bet365 is also streaming matches live. You will need to sign up for a free account, but you do not need to deposit any money nor place any bets. (The entire global betting industry, meanwhile, will be praying that the Vysheyshaya Liga continues throughout the coronavirus crisis: there is precious little else for their clients to place bets on).

Let the games begin.